When you experience nipple pain, your first reaction is inevitably, "What’s wrong - is it cancer?" The good news is, nipple pain seldom signals cancer. Read all about what causes nipple pain - and what you can do about it.
You wake up one morning and you feel a burning pain in your right nipple. Or you put on your bra, and suddenly both nipples feel sore.
Or perhaps you’ve been noticing some discomfort around one nipple that’s suddenly turned into pain and swelling.
Are any of these a sign of breast cancer?
Notice I said "probably" not. Let’s look at one case where nipple pain can indeed be a sign of breast cancer.
If you’re experiencing itching, scaliness, redness, and accompanying pain, or oozing of the nipple, your doctor might diagnose eczema and prescribe medication. If your symptoms don’t respond to the medication, ask about Paget’s disease.
This rare type of breast cancer usually affects older women (over 60), and represents fewer than 5% of those diagnosed with breast cancer. Its treatment is similar to other breast cancers (chiefly, surgery to remove the nipple), and the survival rate is similar, as well. (Hamel, 2007)
But chances are the nipple pain you’re experiencing isn’t cancer-related; so let’s look at other potential sources.
Your breasts are a sensitive part of the body, and your nipples the most tender part of your breasts. So it stands to reason that nipples are easily affected by their environment, including clothing and daily activities.
One of the chief causes of nipple pain can be a poorly fitting bra, or one whose fabric proves irritating. If you’re wearing an older bra, check and see if there’s anything (worn, rough fabric; loose stitching) that might be rubbing on your nipple. If your bra is new, try going back to one of your old favorites, and see if the pain abates.
Another common cause of sudden-onset nipple pain is a change in laundry detergent or shower gel; you might be having a reaction to one of the chemicals in these products. Or perhaps you’ve been swimming in a chlorinated pool more than usual; chlorine can dry and irritate skin, and your nipples are no exception. See if changing back to your old detergent or shower soap - or reducing your hours in the pool - takes the pain away.
There’s the obvious pain of your baby’s bite - even without teeth, an infant’s bite is painful - but constant sucking can irritate your nipples, causing cracks that can be painful and even become infected and then inflamed. When nursing, be sure to keep your nipples clean, as dry as possible, and moistened with baby-safe lotion (e.g., lanolin cream) in between feedings.
Whether from a blow to the breast or enthusiastic lovemaking, your nipples are easily injured. Protect them as you would any other vulnerable area of your body, and understand that rough treatment can result in pain and soreness.
There are a number of bodily changes that can result in nipple pain, including the following:
A swing in the female sex hormones - progesterone and estrogen - is perhaps the most common cause of nipple pain and soreness. Whether it happens with the onset of puberty, or simply as a result of your monthly menstrual cycle, nipple and breast pain due to hormones is completely natural - which doesn’t make it any less painful!
How do you know if hormones are causing your pain? If the pain comes and goes, often in a regular pattern (e.g., it’s severe right before your period, and lessens afterwards); and if unaccompanied by any outward signs (a change in appearance of the nipple), you can be fairly certain the pain is hormonally related.
What can you do about this? Some women report that reducing the caffeine in their diet helps. Others may require a doctor’s intervention and drugs. If the pain is severe and lasting, see your doctor.
This inflammation of the breast is usually the result of breastfeeding, but can result from non-lactational causes, as well. Characterized by redness, swelling, breast and nipple pain, and other signs of infection, mastitis should be taken seriously. If you experience these symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible.
Most often experienced by breastfeeding moms, but possible in others as well, this is basically a yeast infection of the nipple, treatable with a topical anti-fungal cream. If you experience severe nipple pain (in one or both nipples), usually accompanied by deeper pain within the breast as well, see a doctor; you might have this infection, also known as thrush.
Characterized chiefly by itching, this form of dermatitis may also result in pain. One or both of your nipples may look flaky/crusty and red, and you may notice some discharge. Try treating with a topical hydrocortisone cream; but if that doesn’t provide relief within a few days, see your doctor.
Nipple pain can be tough to deal with. But again, thankfully, it doesn’t usually signal breast cancer. Sometimes it goes away on its own; sometimes, especially when there seems to be an obvious cause (e.g., breastfeeding), you can try some self-treatment. But if you have any questions at all about the source of your nipple pain, or how to treat it - see your doctor.
Hamel, P. (2007, May 15). Types of Breast Cancer: Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) and Paget’s Disease. Retrieved January 16, 2015, from https://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/types-36008-5.html
Nipple Dermatitis Information for adults. (2008, December 22). Retrieved January 16, 2015, from https://www.skinsight.com/adult/nippleDermatitis.html
Nipple Pain - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments - Causes. (2013, August 7). Retrieved January 16, 2015, from https://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/womens-health/nipple-pain–causes
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.